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Sunday 31 August 2014

Breaking Bad Finale: Unsettling tale of drug kingpin bows out in truly satisfying style

John Boland

Published 06/10/2013 | 05:00

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While millions of devotees have been mourning the passing of Breaking Bad, which came to the end of its 62-episode run a few days ago, the opening of Homeland's third season attempted to persuade viewers that there's still life in a conspiracy thriller that went completely off the rails on its last outing.

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As a reviewer who feels obliged each week to engage with a bewildering array of new television dramas, I won't pretend that I've kept undeviating faith with Breaking Bad, but I've seen enough of its five seasons to recognise that it's been almost as riveting as its most fanatical admirers insist, and it went out with an arrestingly tense series of showdowns.

Indeed, while David Chase opted to end The Sopranos with an enigmatic conclusion that thrilled some and infuriated others, Breaking Bad's creator and writer Vince Gilligan decided to wrap up all his plot strands very neatly. "We needed to dot all the Is and cross all the Ts," he said, "we needed a resolution", and he certainly achieved that aim.

For those who aren't signed up to Netflix, which is the only medium currently offering the concluding episode (along with the whole five seasons), I won't spoil the fun by divulging the ultimate outcome – beyond saying that this epic tale of a mild-mannered Albuquerque chemistry teacher, Walt, who becomes a monstrous drug lord culminated in a pleasing settling of old scores and a final scene that was as satisfying as it was inevitable – indeed, satisfying because it was inevitable.

Like the rest of the series, it was full of great acting, most notably from Bryan Cranston as Walt but also from all the supporting players, and of great lines, too – my favourite being Walt's weary response to a former business colleague who brandishes a small kitchen cutter: "Elliott, if we're going to go that way, you'll need a bigger knife."

And when warned by his wife not to peddle the line that what he'd done was for the sake of his family, he replied: "I did it for me, I liked it, I was good at it." And part of Gilligan's great if unsettling achievement was to make the viewer like it, too, even though, as one character said in this final episode, "the whole thing felt kind of shady, morality wise".

After a brilliant opening season, the makers of Homeland (RTÉ Two) allowed their CIA loose cannon Carrie and their war-hero-turned-terrorist Brody to indulge in a reckless and increasingly implausible affair and then contrived a situation in which Carrie helped Brody to escape after a terrorist bomb blew up 219 people. Okay, so we knew she was borderline crazy, but did she have to become a traitorous criminal, too?

The melodrama was toned down in this week's opener to the third season, as Carrie got quizzed by a committee presided over by a malevolent senator, who was played with venomous intensity by Tracy Letts. He gave the episode an edge that was sadly lacking in most of the other scenes, especially the lethargic and overlong domestic interludes involving Brody's wife and teenage daughter, though as the latter, Morgan Saylor is always worth watching.

Brody, though, was nowhere to be seen, as if the makers recognised they'd sorely tried the viewer's patience with his errant behaviour last time round. But there wasn't much action, either, apart from a tensely filmed assassination by a CIA operative in the Middle East, and viewers were left wondering in what directions the plotline could possibly go. Time will tell, but not everyone may feel it warrants the time.

In its undemanding, family-audience way, the opening episode of Atlantis (BBC One) was a bit more fun, if not as much fun as Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, two endearingly silly fantasy-adventure movies that it calls to mind. Oh, and it doesn't have the terrific Ray Harryhausen special effects from those movies either.

Still, Jack Donnelly makes for an engaging Jason, Mark Addy's an amusingly fearful and pot-bellied Hercules, there's lots of colourful derring-do and the Moroccan locations are a sight for sore autumnal eyes.

I enjoyed it a good deal more than Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (RTÉ Two/Channel 4), but that may be because I'm not quite up to speed with Stan Lee's various Marvel Comics characters and their specialist superpowers. Why, I hadn't even known that Special Agent Coulson, who's one of the central figures here, had met an untimely end in the Marvel Comics movie, Avengers Assemble, and has somehow been reincarnated.

In other words, the series seems aimed at geekish buffs who take all these things very seriously – the main target audience, I'd imagine, of writer-director Joss Whedon, who first displayed his fantasy chops in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For the record, S.H.I.E.L.D stands for "Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division", which apparently occupies "the line between the world and the much weirder world".

Seemingly, we should give thanks that these superheroes are there to protect us from the forces of evil, though someone should tell them to ease off on the smart-ass banter and come up with a few more thrills.

Irish Independent

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